In my earlier post on The Stone Gods, I mentioned that Winterson uses the idea of reliving history to explore how we humans continue to make the same mistakes in different permutations, even as we struggle towards a return.
One of the embedded sub-narratives in the story has captured my imagination. In the book, one of the characters, Handsome, tells this story:
There was a young man with a hot temper. He was not all bad, but he was reckless, and he drank more than he should, and spent more than he could, and gave a ring to more women than one, and gambled himself into a corner so tight an ant couldn't turn round in it. One night, in despair, and desperate with worry, he got into a fight outside a bar, and killed a man.
Mad with fear and remorse, for he was more hot-tempered than wicked, and stupid when he could have been wise, he locked himself into his filthy bare attic room and took the revolver that had killed his enemy, loaded it, cocked it and prepared to blast himself to pieces.
In the few moments before he pulled the trigger, he said, 'If I had known that all that I have done would bring me to this, I would have led a very different life. If I could live my life again, I would not be here, with the trigger in my hand and the barrel at my head.'
His good angel was sitting by himand, feeling pity for the young man, the angel flew to Heaven and interceded on his behalf.
Then in all his six-winged glory, the angel appeared before the terrified boy, and granted him his wish. 'In full knowledge of what you have become, go back and begin again.'
And suddenly, the young man had another chance.
For a time, all went well. He was sober, upright, true, thrifty. Then one night he passed a bar, and it seemed familiar to him, and he went in and gambled all he had, and he met a woman and told her he had no wife, and he stole from his employer, and spent all he could.
And his debts mounted with his despair, and he decided to gamble everything on one last throw of the dice. This time, as the wheel spun and slowed, his chance would be on the black, not the red. This time, he would win.
The ball fell in the fateful place, as it must.
The young man had lost.
And as you can probably guess, the story continues with the young man getting into a brawl. He killed someone, and found himself with a loaded revolver, in a filthy attic room.
Again, with all sincerity and remorse, he said if he had known, he would never had risked it. He would have done things differently - and again, his angel interceded for him. So the boy was allowed another chance.
But always, the pattern begins: the boy was living a good life, then he would come to a bar that seems familiar - and it would all come back to the same filthy attic room, with the revolver, the angel.
Like some parody of Groundhog Day, I kept coming back to this story. There is an element of Greek tragedy to this story, like being caught in a karmic limbo - destined to repeat the same mistakes. Unredeemable - yet undeniably heroic because we continue to struggle to change in spite of our human condition.